John Oswald

A Time to Hear for Here — John Oswald’s Sound Installation at the Royal Ontario Museum’s Spirit House

Kelvin Browne, Musicworks, no. 98, June 1, 2007

[Article Summary] John Oswald’s circadian sound installation, a time to hear for here, is a permanent installation in the Spirit House in the new Daniel Libeskind Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum, which opened in June, 2007. The Spirit House is criss-crossed on five levels by bridges that join the galleries on either side traversing an empty harp-shaped void. From these bridges, visitors hear the audio installation. Some sounds can be heard only in a specific location, others are audible from many places. Oswald creates a mobile sculpture of sounds — the timings of sound moments and their combinations are fluid. A sidebar by Anne Bourne discusses Oswald’s artistic process, the contributions of project co-ordinator Laurel McDonald, and the voicing of Qui, a twenty-four part canon that occurs once a day as part of the soundscape. Each of the parts is sung in a different language, representing the diversity of the world cultures existing in Canada.

… an experience like nothing else in the world…

Chronophotic, cinéma del l’immobile / moving stills

Neural, December 29, 2006

Time-based media art is a generic label applied to all the arts involving time as one of the mandatory coordinates to experience the works. John Oswald involves time at the very center of his own work, making it the hidden fulcrum of the reality he interprets, slowing down or accelerating his own concept of ‘reality.’ In Chronophotic [Arc d’apparition; Whisperfield] there’s an altered immobility reflected in the continuos almost perceptible changes that very slowly add persons to a sort of group picture, shifting, also slowly their dressed/naked image. The nakedness and the being dressed can be seen as two faces of the same reality, the public/private, the official/intimate, the endlessly alterable/the given one. The avoid misunderstandings, the work is not voyeuristic at all, showing human bodies of all ages in their most natural and neutral shape. Furthermore it simply seem to question our conventional daily perspective and the time we spend observing and relating to other humans. It’s an ancestral species’ issue: dealing with our own essence and our own temporal and instinctually mutual recognition.

The avoid misunderstandings, the work is not voyeuristic at all, showing human bodies of all ages in their most natural and neutral shape.

Oswald is the future of music

Udo Kasemets, Musicworks, no. 89, June 1, 2004

“Perhaps the earliest sound O remembers noticing was the summer cicada. Later there was a dilemma — was the cicada biological or electrical? Where did it come from?” O is none other than John Oswald, and this quote appears early on in An Aparathentic Bio, an autobiographical memoir included in the package containing a compact disc featuring a most extraordinary, imaginative, and intelligent work of sonic art. (Indeed, I could continue with a whole series of alliterative i-words to describe the qualities of the CD: inspired, inquisitive, intimate, inviting, involving, illuminating, informing, and on and on.) When I call it a package, I don’t mean it’s packaging in the commercial sense. Sure, it has an appealing cover design. But that, too, is part of the completeness of the whole presentation. Not only is there one of Oswald’s inimitable (another i-word) photo-images on the exterior of the slide-in case, but there are also hidden images inside the cover tube. The autobiographical notes are printed on the hard covers that protect the CD. And a folded three quarters of a meter-long sheet carries, in small print, two columns of text on each side of an interview where John Oswald discusses in great detail the making and contents of the recording. Nothing of the above is window- dressing. Oswald’s work is never compartmentalized. Every aspect of research, preparation, realization, and presentation is part of a whole. So, when he writes about O’s curiosity about the cicada; or how O explored the innards of a transistor radio to understand its secrets; or how O experimented with the variable speeds of a phonograph and of reel-to-reel tape recorders; Oswald suggests to the reader that intimate involvement (yes, the i-words) with the reality of sounds and their sources is the foundation of any true musical experience. He invites (i-word!) the reader to enter into O’s world, where what appears to be simple and mundane will eventually emerge as intricate (another i-word) and even quite miraculous. Mind you, the music on the CD can be enjoyed without knowing anything about its maker and makings. Its sounds are organized so sensitively, elegantly, and competently, that their pure physicality draws the listener into the soundscape, and holds her or him there until the almost inaudible fadeout which brings both of the pieces on the disc to a close. Any attempt to describe the pieces in the framework of a brief review is doomed to failure. The parting points for the pieces are the most elementary tunings known to anybody with even the most cursory interest in sonic reality. The first Aparanthesi is based on the frequency 440 Hz — the fundamental tuning tone (named ‘A’) of the Western musical system. For the second aporanthesi Oswald chose the North American electrical standard, 60 Hz as its tuning base. As a plain sine tone, or a piano or cello sound (the only two “conventional” instruments employed), their choice may appear utterly mundane. But the commonality disappears when Oswald exploits the numerous variables underwhich these materials can be exhibited. For instance, there is a delicate but definite difference between hearing the piano range’s eight As as struck on the keyboard, and as they are modulated from a single-source A. Oswald describes one of his processes where the eighty-eight keys of a piano are all tuned to one A (“which sounds like a three-inch long guitar”). By “pitching up” or “pitching down” each of the eighty-eight keys one can imagine a “virtual” grand piano that can grow from its initial length of just ten inches to a monster of over one hundred feet. Not only does Oswald tune the sine, piano, and cello tones to the basic pitch (or its multiples) of the piece, but he does the same with the sounds of thunder, birds, foghorns, and cattle. But it is not just the choice of the sounds — synthetic, instrumental, and of nature — that makes listening to the two Aparanthesi such a special experience; it is also John Oswald’s ability to handle the fadings in and out, the blendings and unblendings, and the spacings and timings of the various materials and their combinations with exquisite taste and acoustic sensitivity. In other words, it is the supreme artistry of John Oswald that gives Aparanthesi its uniquely special quality. I suggested earlier that listening to this CD is thoroughly enjoyable even without reading any of the texts included in the package. (By the way, the package is bilingual: An Aparathentic Bio is in French, the interview in English. Nevertheless, much is to be gained by taking time and with O’s formative years and his personality through his own words. It is not an autobiography like most. It is not about “Look what I have achieved”; it is about “Look — everything, even the smallest, the simplest, is interesting.” And the three-meters-long transcript of the descriptive interview provides a wonderful guide to the listener on how to become an informed partner of a musical process from its genesis in the researcher’s mind to the final consummation in the listener’s ear. Every serious music student should spend hours (and days) with Aparanthesi. Elsewhere in this issue of Musicworks I suggest that we are at the end of an era of musical development in Western culture, and that a new era is in the primal stage of its making. If the clarity of mind, intellectual discipline, and aural sensitivity that went into the process of the production of Aparanthesi is an indication of the direction music of the twenty-first century will take, the future is bright.

… a most extraordinary, imaginative, and intelligent work of sonic art.

Prix du Gouverneur général

Réjean Beaucage, La Scena Musicale, no. 9:7, April 1, 2004

L’édition 2004 de la remise des Prix du Gouverneur général en arts visuels et en arts médiatiques a soulevé des remous alors que deux des prix, d’une valeur de 15 000$ chacun, ont été remis à des artistes connus, entre autres, pour leurs travaux sur la musique (ou le son): John Oswald et Istvan Kantor (alias Monty Cantsin). Artiste anarchiste se qualifiant de «néoiste», Kantor est connu pour des performances d’une grande violence où la vidéo, la musique électronique et les bruits en direct convergent dans une esthétique de la destruction. Ses performances, réalisées avec le MachineSexActionGroup, ont été présentées maintes fois à Montréal et Toronto. L’artiste a connu plusieurs fois des démêlés avec la justice, notamment en 1991, alors qu’il avait aspergé un mur du Musée des beaux-arts du Canada de son sang, tachant au passage une œuvre de Picasso (le lauréat serait depuis cet incident interdit de séjour au Musée…).

John Oswald, s’il est moins intempestif, n’en a pas moins eu lui aussi maille à partir avec la justice, qui le forçait en 1990 à détruire tous les enregistrements disponibles de son œuvre Plunderphonics («pillage sonore»), faite à partir de bribes d’œuvres existantes et que l’artiste distribuait gratuitement. Ses premières œuvres ont déclenché un débat sur la propriété (le copyright) qui dure toujours et à propos duquel le musicien Chris Cutler a un jour déclaré: «Si la créativité est un champ, alors le copyright est une clôture». Loin d’être un vulgaire plagiaire, John Oswald, qui est par ailleurs aussi un saxophoniste de haut calibre, fait preuve depuis toujours d’une imagination débordante dans l’élaboration d’un corpus d’œuvres multiformes et extrêmement personnelles.

… fait preuve depuis toujours d’une imagination débordante dans l’élaboration d’un corpus d’œuvres multiformes et extrêmement personnelles.

2004 Governor General’s Awards

Martin Arnold, Conseil des arts du Canada, March 3, 2004

It is fortunate that the Governor General should recognize achievements in the ‘media arts.’ For it is only a term as open-ended in its compass as ‘media’ that could possibly serve to embrace the wildly multifarious yet utterly particular art of John Oswald. ‘Media’ is plural, denoting more than one medium. And a medium, in its most basic sense, is a means, any means, of effecting or conveying something, anything. Medium is also a poetically apt word to invoke in the case of John Oswald, as it is directly derived from the Latin word meaning ‘the one in the middle.’ Oswald throws himself into the middle, or, more correctly, many, many middles. His voracious creative imagination stalks the areas in between traditional cultural categories. However, the aim of this in-betweenness is not to create work that is somehow outside of, or separate from, the kinds of activities these categories usually suggest. On the contrary, Oswald’s art is radically inclusive. As he says: “I acknowledge categories mainly as traditional distinctions, ripe with opportunity for bridging in unique ways.” Or, as he put it in a recent interview: “I’m sometimes told that this or that thing of mine seems to fall between the cracks of categorization. I’m not very sympathetic to this notion. I think these bridges I’m trying to build are, in fact, intended to span those cracks.”

So what does Oswald do? He does, and/or has done, plunderphonics, mystery tapes, rascali klepitoire, art wrestling, pitch works, spinvolver works and chronophotics, to name just a few of his creative activities. These are, of course, his names, his categories — some of the more obvious examples of John’s creative interaction with categorization. He has also described himself as a sound artist. Dance, photography, performance, new media — all are means for his eclectic, category-defying artistic expression. Again, in his own words:

“On reflection, I find that the existence of categorical distinctions in art-making, particularly irrational categorization, is a motivating force for many of my endeavours. It may be a response to a commission. Someone asks for an opera, I immediately think ‘what is an opera?’ I do have my own categories for most things; it’s difficult to talk about anything if one is not willing to make distinctions. But I’m not willing to set these categories down in stone, mostly because I think it is more fruitful to invest in challenging my own distinctions. This is thinking of category as process rather than receptacle.”

This is what one would expect from an artist who claims that the transistor radio was his first instrument.

Listening — or better yet, observing (in every sense of the word), as a creative practice that can open itself onto active intervention and experimentation, is at the heart of all of John Oswald’s art. One imagines him playing the radio: cutting between musical styles and spoken declarations, allowing them to modulate each other as the dial rests between stations, working with the heterophonous incursions of the ever shifting noise-world of radio static.

And his radio playing must surely be the precursor of his plunderphonics. The term plunderphonics has gained currency with at least a margin of popular culture at large; it is even applied to work that has nothing to do with him. It is in common usage within the alternative music press and refers to music that is made from recordings of other people’s music. Its widespread currency is related to the ubiquity of samples of others’ music in hip-hop and the collage-like appropriations of disc jockey/emcee culture in general. Oswald’s art has always aggressively taken part in the debates that surround this kind of music-making — debates about the myths of originality in creative production, about intellectual property and copyright, about the politics of distinguishing the separateness of a work of art from other works of art. These are important debates and Oswald’s contribution to them cannot be underestimated.

Since the start of the 1990s Oswald’s plunderphonics recordings have sold over 100,000 copies world wide. He has been on the cover of the British magazine The Wire, and several of his recordings have made the yearly top-ten lists of publications such as Rolling Stone, The New York Times and Spin.

Oswald is a kind of alchemist (his studio is called mLab, the ‘m’ standing for mystery). He does not really use others’ music; rather he transmutes it — he changes its nature and form. The metaphorical invocation of alchemy breaks down somewhat, though, for while transmutation might be at work in Oswald’s practice, the alchemist actually changes lead into gold, and it is no longer recognizable as lead. Oswald certainly hopes that the listener recognizes what has been plundered to form his plunderphonics. Yet being able to fill in the cultural texts implicit in his source materials only makes their transmutations more profoundly strange and wonderful. Case in point: his recent retrospective collection of plunderphonics starts with a 56-second piece, btls, that starts with the famous last chord of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

John Oswald: “The original E Major chord was created, according to producer George Martin, by having five people, or 10 hands, or in this case, 60 fingers, at three pianos, all simultaneously playing the same chord… That’s the first thing you hear, that last chord. Then you hear the chord again, but a semi-tone higher, as if the 60 fingers crab-walked to the right on the piano one step. The veracity of this aural illusion is very important to me. George Martin, John, Paul, Ringo and Mal could have made very nearly this exact sound by doing what I just described in the studio back in 1967. The third iteration of the chord would require an additional 60 fingers… Now that you, the listener, are probably getting the idea of this transformation and accumulation, we throw in another element, which is the opening D7/sus4 guitar chord from A Hard Day’s Night.”

John Oswald’s art is specific, particular, idiosyncratic and weirdly intimate. However, the intimacy is not located between Oswald as the offerer of the work and ourselves as its receivers (the sense of an author trying to authorize a correct meaning or assert an intended reception is wonderfully absent or incoherently multiple here). Rather, the intimacy resides in the symbiosis between the precarious, often fragile relationship of elements that inhabit each piece and the wild array of personal associations that spill out of and around the viewer/listener’s relationship to the source material and whatever skewed resonances it retains.

Oswald has recently been concentrating more and more on visual art. Still, it is thoroughly coherent with his other art practices, and stems naturally from his plunderphonics experiments. His mani-pulations of existing music were by this point being worked out in his computer and his awareness of what was possible in the world of digital image-processing grew naturally from his interest in computers as a tool for producing art. (It is a noteworthy evolution from the transistor radio to splicing, record button editing and multitracking tape to samplers to computers.) Some of his first images were amalgams of the features of pop stars — Prince was blended with Annie Lennox, Elvis with Paul McCartney, and so on. On the surface, these images seem obviously analogous to his plunderphonics procedures — the combining/morphing of recognizable materials into new hybrids. However, there is a significant difference: the recognizability of a pop star is a public-commercial construction. The recognizability of a pop song is something very different. It is intimate; it belongs to the listener, with specific songs forming specific, immutable relationships to specific times in a listener’s life. Oswald has always maintained that his plunderphonics has never been about parody, superior critique or surreal juxtaposition. He has always been interested in finding new ways to hear music he loves creating new, intimate relationships.

His newest visual works, his chronophotics (time plus light), bring this level of intimacy to his visual experiments. In them, Oswald digitally photographs subjects holding more or less the same pose, both clothed and naked. He then digitally combines a collection of these photos to form a video or video-projected image that appears to be a crowd looking out at the viewer. Over time, the make-up of the crowd shifts as some members fade away and others slowly appear, while at the same time the clothes of various members fade away and appear. What is shifting before the viewer’s eyes is a community of physical and social relationships; significantly, created through bringing together images of members of the actual community the piece is being shown in. Oswald’s photographing of the participants with and without their clothes is also important. Their nakedness is again not just a representation of intimacy. Choosing to have a picture taken and shown of yourself without your clothes on embodies a very distinct and, for most, strangely rarefied relationship to the process of being photographed, to the photographer, and to the potential viewer. At the same time, it brings the wild specificity of fashion choices into relief. Oswald has been involved with experimental dance for almost 30 years, and this dance awareness is at work here.

As with the plunderphonics, and all of John Oswald’s art, this is not just work about intimate relationships, but rather work that seeks to discover new, strange and wonderful intimate relationships.

Martin Arnold is a musician (composer and improviser) based in Toronto.

His voracious creative imagination stalks the areas in between traditional cultural categories.


François Tousignant, Le Devoir, March 24, 2003

Le concert commence par une sorte de magnifique raga pour l’orage du soir. Voilà comment on pourrait le mieux qualifier ces trente minutes d’aparanthesi A, de John Oswald. Une «note» de piano manipulée dans tous les registres, de l’extrême grave au suraigu en constitue la toile de fond. Sur ce drone (faux-bourdon), varié dans son émission et son traitement comme dans ses prolongations mobiles dans l’espace, se dessinera un orage, un vrai. La pluie tombe et s’égoutte, la turbulence passe. Au ruissellement s’adjoint l’accompagnement de timides oiseaux et d’une symphonie de grillons, du murmure du ruisseau. La nuit tombe, la musique s’efface lentement, on quitte la réalité pour le rêve. Une indescriptible poésie émane de cette simplicité finement ouvragée, d’une inspiration raffinée et sensible. Oswald, refusant la simplicité et la complaisance, allie le travail atmosphérique et l’intériorité du partage d’une expérience intime.

Le Tremblement de terre très doux, de François Bayle, est un classique. Plus de vingt ans après sa conception, l’œuvre se montre toujours aussi solide. Le typification du matériaux fait penser aujourd’hui à des zones thématiques d’exposition, de variations, de développements et même de superposition finale des matériaux. La diffusion qu’en fait Stéphane Roy met l’accent à la fois sur la structure et sur la vibration significative qu’entretiennent les divers éléments. Même si on entend des sonorités d’avant le numérique, l’art de leur utilisation reste d’une provocante actualité.

… une sorte de magnifique raga pour l’orage du soir.